Trenton Bakeberg, a young citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, holds a sign while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota on October 30, 2016. Photo courtesy Trenton Bakeberg
Environment | Health | National

Native American psychologists slam police tactics a year after Standing Rock


Native American psychologists slam police tactics at Standing Rock

Native youth and veteran experienced #NoDAPL trauma

By Kevin Abourezk
@Kevin_Abourezk

Trenton Bakeberg sang and poured water over red-hot rocks that turned to steam in the center of the sweat lodge that afternoon nearly a year ago.

A young man sat across from him inside the sacred circle. Outside, a cold wind carried the sound of an approaching army across the prairie near Cannonball, North Dakota.

The night before, a camp crier had awoken those sleeping in the camp set up in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline. “The cavalry’s coming,” the man had shouted. But the cavalry didn’t come that night.

Still, the protesters awoke that morning with a sense of dread, knowing their camp would likely be razed that day, October 27, 2016. All around the site known as the Treaty Camp, National Guard soldiers with sniper rifles set themselves up on hills while vehicles with rocket launchers rolled into position.

The 20-year-old Cheyenne River Sioux man and his friend continued their prayers inside the inipi, singing the songs their relatives and ceremonial leaders had taught them. They had just begun the fourth and final round when a police officer yelled at them from outside the small hut to finish their ceremony. Before they could finish, however, police officers began tearing down the sweat lodge, pulling the blankets off the willow branch structure.

“I got scared because I knew they were desecrating the ceremony,” Bakeberg said.

An officer dressed in full riot gear reached into the hut and grabbed him and pulled him out. The officer used zip ties to bind his hands behind his back and began leading him to a nearby ditch. Wearing only boxers, Bakeberg shivered as the officer pushed him onto the ground and told him to wait.

He begged for clothes, but the officer said nothing.

“He wouldn’t even look at me.”

A relative from his reservation was sitting nearby and scooted close to Bakeberg to keep him warm. An elderly woman handed him a towel to wrap around himself. The three protesters waited for what seemed like hours until officers finally loaded them into buses and drove them to jail, where they printed numbers on their arms to identify them.

Bakeberg became No. 162.

Transferred to a county jail nearly three hours away, he spent nearly three days in jail before being released.

He spent the next year trying to make sense of that cold day on the prairie.

“I freeze up when I think about it. Everything changed after that day.”

* * *

Thousands of tribal citizens and their allies marched through the streets of Washington, D.C., for Native Nations Rise on March 10, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) More Photos on Flickr

The gathering of tens of thousands of Native Americans and their allies to the construction grounds in North Dakota last year drew international attention and became a pivotal moment in Indian history, when tribes united to stand against what they considered greed and the destruction of natural resources.

Oil began flowing June 1 from the $3.8 billion pipeline after the final portion of the 1,172-mile pipeline was completed less than a half-mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe have sued to stop the project. In June, Judge James Boasberg ordered the Trump administration to conduct a more thorough review of the project, though at the time he didn’t say whether the pipeline could continue to transport oil while the case proceeds.

On October 11, however, Boasberg ruled the oil could continue to flow while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finishes an environmental review on the agency permit.

The months-long protest drew many non-Indian protesters, men and women who stood alongside Indians from nearly every tribe in America, hoisting signs and chanting phrases like “Mni Wiconi” (water is life in Lakota) and “You can’t drink oil.” Those protesters routinely clashed with law enforcement officers, whose used rubber bullets, water cannons, mace and tear gas to disperse crowds.

An association of Native American psychologists recently published a paper criticizing the law enforcement response to the pipeline protests, as well as the military-style tactics used by a security firm hired by the company that built the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The October 4 report by the Society of Indian Psychologists criticized the security firm, TigerSwan, citing internal company documents revealed by the news website The Intercept that showed the firm’s attempts to label the protest movement as “terrorist,” “jihadist” and “violent.”

“We wholeheartedly reject the militarized treatment of un-armed and peaceful Water Protectors, including but not limited to monitoring and surveillance, infiltration, and aggressive ‘non-lethal actions,’” the association said in its paper.

The security firm has come under fire by the North Dakota Private Investigative and Security Board for operating in North Dakota without a license. In a June 12 complaint, the board said it denied an application from TigerSwan founder James Patrick Reese to become a licensed private security provider.

Reese and his firm have “illegally continued to conduct private investigative and/or private security services in North Dakota following the denial of their application of licensure,” the board wrote in its complaint.

The use of non-lethal tactics by law enforcement led to numerous injuries among protesters, the Society of Indian Psychologists wrote in its paper, citing the evacuation of 26 protesters to area hospitals on November 20, 2016, alone.

“The tactics used against the Water Protectors included the creation of a militarized zone, with helicopters and a Cessna plane conducting ongoing surveillance from the air,” the group wrote. “As the movement continued, alleged high intensity spotlights were focused on the camps at night, and intelligence was gained through use of infiltrators and informants.”

The psychologists’ association said the use of such tactics likely had a powerful psychological impact on the protesters, many of whom were military veterans who may have re-experienced past traumatic experiences while on the frontlines in North Dakota.

“Given that we know a great number of Native American people participated in the movement, and that multigenerational trauma and the ongoing effects of colonialism have left their mark, it is likely to have triggered normative fear and recurrence of traumatic themes from history,” the association wrote.

Civilians involved in the protests who remained at the camps for long periods of time likely have suffered “normative paranoia” and fear as a result of constant stress from anti-protest tactics employed by law enforcement, the association wrote. Protesters may have begun to question who they could trust and whether they would ever be truly safe again, the group said.

“Some might find their confidence in the democratic right to protest, afforded as a self-evident truth, diminished,” the group wrote.

* * *

In this late November 2016 photo, Tonia Stands, a 39-year-old citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, stands on a bridge in North Dakota just hours before #NoDAPL protesters and law enforcement personnel clashed there. Photo courtesy Tonia Stands

Tonia Stands spent months at Standing Rock, leaving only after law enforcement cleared out the last camp — Oceti Sakowin — on February 23.

That day is carved in her memory, and the 39-year-old Oglala Lakota and former Marine fights through tears to describe what she experienced on that final day.

As officers stormed the camp, Stands and other protesters were engaging in a sacred pipe, or canupa, ceremony. As she held her medicine pipe up, an officer grabbed the sacred object and tried to wrest it from her, damaging the object.

“They don’t have the authority to touch that sacred item,” she said.

The officers pointed their guns at the protesters and gave them 5 minutes to leave. Many officers began pouring gasoline on people’s personal belongings and temporary shelters, igniting several fires, she said. Stands managed to chase officers away from her tent.

She describes seeing a helicopter gunner who pointed his finger at protesters, mimicking a shooting motion and laughing as the aircraft flew above the camp that day.

Not long after some of those officers were chased away after pouring gasoline on several shelters but before burning down the structures, Stands’ 18-year-old niece and the girl’s younger brother walked into camp to collect some of their belongings. As the young woman lit a cigarette, the flame ignited gas fumes, causing an explosion that burned much of her face.

She had to endure several painful reconstructive surgeries and remains scarred, physically and emotionally, from the incident, Stands said.

“Nobody remembers her,” she said, struggling to get the words out. “Nobody honors her.”

Since his fateful encounter with police and his brief imprisonment nearly a year ago, Bakeberg has fought back feelings of depression and insecurity. He said he’s only participated in sweat lodge ceremonies twice since October 27, 2016, far less than his nearly twice-a-month routine before that day.

He’s also leaned on alcohol for respite more than he ever did before. Nightmares, panic attacks and a gnawing fear that corporations are slowly taking control of America’s democratic institutions also have plagued him.

“Ever since then, I felt like the world is ending,” he said. “The trauma is real, and I’m not the only one.”

But he hasn’t given up the fight.

In early October, he joined youth leaders from across America in Aspen, Colorado, to explore ways to improve education and employment opportunities for at-risk youth.

A freestyle rap artist, Bakeberg also has used his music to speak out about the need to continue the fight against corporate greed in America.

In September, he performed an original song called “Mni Wiconi” in a talent show on his reservation.

Why should we listen?
They’re not respectin’ the treaties
These people are evil
They pulled me out of the inipi

They call it business
It’s sacrilegious
I’ve witnessed the sickness and it’s ridiculous
My forgiveness is freaky
Mni wiconi

Society of Indian Psychologists Report:
Educational Paper Regarding the Use of Counterterrorism Tactics on Native Peoples and Allies (October 2017)

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